Federal Diary: Fixing Hiring Process Is Worth $40 Million Price Tag

Sens. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), left, and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) sponsored a bill that promises to make a difference for job seekers.
Sens. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), left, and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) sponsored a bill that promises to make a difference for job seekers. (Boris Grdanoski - Associated Press)
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By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's cheap at any price.

The Congressional Budget Office says a bill designed to fix the broken federal hiring process would cost $40 million over five years.

That's a pittance -- loose change rolling around in Uncle Sam's deep pockets -- compared with the aggravation, frustration and irritation many government job seekers encounter.

A major chunk of that money, $15 million, would be spent in fiscal year 2010 to develop the data-collection systems agencies would need to collect hiring statistics and make reports to Congress. Much of the remainder would be used to maintain those systems.

"The return on that investment would be many times greater than that," said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government group that focuses on the federal workforce. "I thought that was a bargain."

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget are developing initiatives and attempting to more vigorously enforce old ones to energize a sputtering hiring process.

The legislation was sponsored by Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), the chairman and top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia. In addition to forcing agencies to systematically deal with such bureaucratic necessities as hiring projections, recruitment strategies and "strategic human capital planning," the bill promises to make a real difference in the way the government hires people.

For one thing, it takes the radical position that job announcements should be written in language people can actually understand and not the unintelligible bureaucratese Washington is famous for. The legislation even defines the requirement, saying "that means writing that the intended audience can readily understand and use because that writing is clear, concise, well-organized."

Agency heads would be charged with streamlining their hiring procedures within six months of the bill becoming law. That would include doing away with the lengthy "knowledge, skills and abilities" essays that many applicants dread writing. Instead, the bill -- itself largely written in plain English -- would "allow applicants to submit a cover letter, resume and answers to brief questions, such as questions relating to United States citizenship and veterans status."

One of applicants' major complaints is that after they jump through the onerous hoops Uncle Sam now requires, they then hear nothing for long periods. The legislation would require officials to notify job seekers about their status at various points in the process, including telling them within five days that their applications had been received. Those not chosen would be told no more than 10 days after a successful candidate accepted the job offer. And agencies would be required to fill jobs within 80 calendar days, on average, "to the extent practical."

One provision that is music to Palguta's ears would create a training program for federal human resource professionals. Last month, his group hosted a program focusing on the need to pay greater attention to HR folks.

Better-trained personnel experts are crucial, particularly as the administration and Congress move to improve the hiring process. Otherwise, we could end up with a new and improved process in theory, but without the skilled professionals needed to put those changes in practice.

"This could be an empty reform if we all agree on what needs to be done, but we look around and we don't have enough of the right people to do it," Palguta warned.

He emphasizes "the right people," because with 25,000 HR professionals, Palguta said the government isn't lacking the troops, at least not yet. But over the next decade, 40 percent of them will be eligible to retire and others will leave for other reasons.

Beyond departures, the quality of the government's HR workforce "is a mixed bag," Palguta said. Some are very good, but "we don't have enough people with the right competencies."

One thing too many can't do well, he said, is write job announcements in clear language.

The Partnership for Public Service will issue a report Thursday about the jobs government agencies need to fill to carry out their missions. It's telling, Palguta said, that 14 agencies identified human resources "as a mission critical occupation -- if those positions aren't filled they will have trouble getting their jobs done."

The legislation, its CBO cost estimate and other information can be found at http://washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

Holding Down Pay Raise

The Obama administration's effort to hire HR professionals and other needed staffers probably won't be helped by the president's decision to hold the pay raise for federal employees to 2 percent for the next fiscal year.

In a letter sent Monday to congressional leaders, President Obama effectively rejected a tradition of most of the past 30 years that gave civilian workers the same pay increase as military personnel, who are slated to get a 3.4 percent boost. And no one dares to hope that he would grant Frankie and Flo Fed the average 18.9 percent raise that Obama's letter said they are due under a formula related to locality pay.

Obama cited the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as the national emergency that allows him to implement an alternative pay plan. "Likewise, with unemployment at 9.5 percent in June . . . few would disagree that our country is facing serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare," he wrote. "The growth in Federal requirements is straining the Federal budget."

This, of course, does not please federal workers and their supporters in Congress.

"To recruit and retain a quality federal workforce, this Congress and the administration must show a commitment to quality pay and benefits," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). ". . . The federal employees in my congressional district and the millions across the country deserve appropriate recognition for the vital work they perform -- and that includes a decent pay raise."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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